JERUSALEM — The mysterious abduction of a Palestinian engineer from Ukraine to Israel two months ago will either turn out to have been a brilliant anti-terrorist tactic or a useless exercise in international intrigue.
Because of a gag order granted the General Security Service by an Israeli court, it is impossible to publicize the details of Darar Abu-Sisi’s seizure aboard a train bound for Kiev, his brief stay in a Ukrainian safe house and his flight under guard to this country.
According to the German weekly Der Spiegel, Abu-Sisi is an active member if not a key figure in the Gaza Strip’s ruling Hamas organization. This prompted it to report that as such, he has useful information about the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who has been held incommunicado somewhere in the Strip for the past five years.
Abu-Sisi denied any knowledge of that episode when he was arraigned in Tel Aviv last week.
His Ukrainian wife, Veronica, vehemently backs this statement. She said that Abu-Sisi was applying for Ukrainian citizenship and that the couple intended to make Ukraine its permanent home. Until his trip there, Abu-Sisi ran the Strip’s sole electricity generating plant.
One theory that cannot generate any publishable comment here is that his abductors may have intended to use him in an eventual swap for Shalit.
Gag orders are as common in Israel as they are in the United States. However, the Israelis use them in cases linked to political or national security case more often than do the Americans.
For example, when Anat Kam, a woman soldier assigned to a unit that dealt with sensitive military information stole thousands — some say up to 100,000 — of documents from her office and handed them over to Uri Blau, a reporter working for the daily Haaretz, a gag order was obtained immediately after she was taken into custody last year. It prevented the local news media from revealing any details.
Also a year ago, when Amir Makhhoul, a human rights activist and head of the Union of Arab Community-Based Associations (a U.N.-recognized NGO), was arrested at 3:10 a.m. in his Haifa residence and taken away by Shin Bet (General Security Service) agents, a gag order was slapped on that case as well.
The list is so long that space precludes mention of all the instances dating back to Israel’s establishment as an independent state. It includes a ban on disclosures related to the bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor in December 2007. Nothing can be said here either about that or Israel’s main nuclear reactor at Dimona in the Negev desert.
As a result, journalists who purport to be in the know consistently quote reports or disclosures published or broadcast abroad and scrupulously cite their sources to avoid arrest for violating the relevant gag orders.
This practice often seems to be self-defeating if not counterproductive. When Japan’s nuclear power plant at Fukushima was severely damaged in the recent earthquake and tsunami, events that evidently revealed flaws in its construction or safety measures, no specifics could be cited about the comparable facilities here. One of Israel’s leading nuclear experts had the temerity to stress reactors that are more than 50 years old are wont to be technically impaired and that the one in Dimona falls into that category. He also noted that the total secrecy in which the Dimona reactor operates (not to mention its presumed output of nuclear devices) prevents experts from assessing the degree or quality of official supervision of its operational safety. This inhibition fostered real, though unpublicized, public concern about the possible consequences.
The extent to which gag orders are used in Israel to squelch data about which the public should have the right to know flagrantly contradicts the recently adopted mantra that Israel is a “Jewish and democratic state.” Democracy requires freedom of the press to be genuine and effective. Gag orders that go far beyond the justifiable right of citizens to safeguard their own privacy when they are involved in sensitive legal disputes are undemocratic.
Retired Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner, who heads the Israeli Press Council, has come out unequivocally against officialdom’s frequent recourse to gag orders as unwarranted means to delay if not suppress critical information. Amir Oren, the daily Haaretz’ well-informed security affairs analyst, sees an anomaly in the fact that despite the gag orders there always are hundreds of journalists and other insiders who know all that the gag orders purportedly prevent them from knowing.
In fact, this ludicrous state of affairs has made the possession of secret or super-sensitive information a common technique in social “one-upmanship.” It simply implies that whatever you know I know better!
(Jay Bushinsky, an Israel-based political columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)